First Coast Energy’s quest to build the first-ever two-story Daily’s gas station, restaurant and rooftop lounge in LaVilla was sent back to the drawing board late last week by Jacksonville’s Downtown Development Review Board.
The board deferred a conceptual approval decision on the proposed mixed-use development on a vacant lot near the Acosta Bridge — a move members of the LaVilla community welcomed. The Jan. 12 deferral means the Downtown Improvement Authority will bring the DDRB’s concerns to Jacksonville-based First Coast Energy before they can bring the Daily’s project before the board again in a workshop.
“The problem is it doesn’t fit in with any of the surrounding blocks,” says Bill Delaney, co-founder of The Jaxson, which writes about urban planning and city history. He says it’s encouraging to see that the DDRB “called out” First Coast Energy for its lack of community input and adherence to downtown design standards.
“They wanted to use a standard layout, like you would find in their suburban locations,” he says, meaning, for one thing, its four proposed entry points would cut into sidewalk space and make the area less safe for pedestrians.
LaVilla, once nicknamed the Harlem of the South, was “largely razed in the name of 1990s urban redevelopment,” according to The Jaxson.
Ernest J. Smith III was one of nearly a half dozen people who addressed the board during public comment last week. Smith says he would like to see more connection between First Coast Energy, the board and the LaVilla community.
“We want to make sure they are a partner in that community,” Smith said on Thursday. “We want to see economic development that will help the community and not create more visible nuisance with homeless congregating and panhandling.”
The board itself echoed concerns that the mixed-use development proposal was not pedestrian friendly and did not adhere to the city’s Downtown design guidelines that call for the minimization of “superblocks.”
DDRB member Gary Monahan called the site plan “beyond disappointing.” Fred Jones called it a callous disregard for the Downtown site plan and regulations. Craig Davisson said the idea needed “major steps” to move forward.
DIA officials tell Jacksonville Today they are working to schedule a workshop between the DDRB and First Coast Energy this week. First Coast Energy counsel Steve Diebenow expressed a willingness to address issues prior to that workshop.
LaVilla resident Karissa Hall told the board she wants to participate in the workshop whenever it takes place. She says preserving history in the neighborhood is needed, but so too is economic development.
“We don’t want LaVilla to become a big living museum,” Hall says. “We want to restore it back to its greatness, put it back on the national stage …I just don’t think a gas station with a beer garden does that for the community.”
Delaney says having the DDRB and members of the community in alignment is a positive for ensuring that whatever is developed along the block meets the city’s design standards as well as the expectations of LaVilla residents.
One thing that also doesn’t hurt, he says, is the advocacy of Council Member Ju’Coby Pittman, who also serves as the CEO of LaVilla-based Clara White Mission, and who told the board that LaVilla needs a walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood and “something more than a gas station.”
“It’s definitely encouraging that this got on her wavelength, and she was critical of the current design,” Delaney says.
If the project receives conceptual and final approval from the DDRB, it would not need to go before the City Council.
“It’s a lot easier to fix it when it’s on nice, cheap paper than it is to fix it after it’s already been built,” Delaney says.